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Final Words, launched today, is a sprawling documentary project that focuses on the humanity at center of the death penalty in America. It is the brainchild of photographer Marc Asnin known for his brick of a book Uncle Charlie. Well, this project takes Asnin from the personal to the political, but it is no less massive. Asnin’s got form.
Asnin is asking photographers and non-photographers alike to submit selfies as statements against the death penalty. I’ll get to that in a moment but first the project and the cause.
Final Words is a book and traveling exhibition, featuring the final statements of the 515 prisoners executed by the state of Texas since 1982. Final Words will shape and deliver curricula to American high-schoolers. If we can get the youngest generation talking then perhaps we can engineer a future without the barbaric death penalty?
The project statement explains that more than one person every month for thirty-one years has been executed by the Lone Star State:
Just before the execution is completed, each prisoner is given the opportunity to share their final thoughts. […] It is their words, their final words in this life, that allow the reader to experience the underlining humanity central to the death penalty debate. […] Final Words comprises a part of the legacy that will live on beyond us and it will stand as a testament to the kind of society we were—who our criminals were and how we implemented our idea of justice. Final Words interrogates our presuppositions about the death penalty. […] While this book is a document of death—the death of both the guilty and innocent, the criminals and the victims—it attempts to create a dialogue about life.
All this takes a movement. And money. An IndieGogo campaign will launch in a months time.
The editioned Final Words books will cost a pretty penny. Their sales will help raise money to pump simpler versions of the content and curricula into the bloodstream of the education system.
Each page of the book features a prisoner’s mug shot, their age both at the time of the crime and when they were put to death, a description of the crime for which they stand convicted, and their final words.
Photographers Selfie Against the Death Penalty
In other efforts to corral some cash, Neverland Publications (cofounded by Asnin) and VII Association are collaborating on Photographers Selfie Against the Death Penalty, an international photo campaign to call for an end to executions in America. Highflying pixelmakers & imagershakers will submitting alongside us flailing Instagram plebs.
Note that the word “selfie” is used as a verb. I like that. Jury’s out as to how much a collection of selfies can effect entrenched moral politics, but it’s worth a try. Social media does nothing if not surprise regularly. And besides, all this just gets people talking ahead of Final Words‘ big fundraising campaign that ignites in October.
As the 501c3 sponsor of the project, VII Photo has asked all its photographers to participate in the selfie campaign. Get yourself in there too:
1. Make a selfie, save it to your computer.
2a. Upload selfie to http://www.final-words.org
2b. Fill out form (name, age, email address, location, how you heard about Photographers Selfies Against the Death Penalty, your preferred photography genre)
2c. Personalize your statement against the death penalty, by completing the following “I stand against the death penalty because …” in 140 characters or less.
Go on, selfie against the machine!
[Oh, if you’re wondering how and why Asnin and his colleagues have the last statements of 515 men and women, it is because for some reason the state of Texas keeps a public online database of them. Weird, no?!]
The 15th Annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty takes place in Houston, Texas on Saturday October 25th at 2pm. Details on the exact location in Houston will be announced later.
Mercedes Smith, a formerly incarcerated person, reads a letter from her currently imprisoned son, at a relatives house where she lives after working all day on July 13, 2012, in Manhattan New York. Ms. Smith is not allowed to live with her family while she is on bail because her mother still lives in the same building as where the crime took place. Ms. Smith served 20 years for 2nd degree manslaughter and was released in 2010. (Photo by Ashley Gilbertson / VII)
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Think Outside The Cell, a NYC based advocacy group, and VII Photo Agency recently collaborated to create a media campaign to educate the public about the continued struggles for felons post-release. This conversation with Ashley Gilbertson is the final part of a five part series, ‘Ending The Stigma Of Incarceration.’
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This text has been edited from longer conversation.
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PP: In part four I spoke with your colleague Jessica Dimmock. How was it working with her?
AG: It was easy. Jess is a photographer as a primary, so she knows how photographers move. We went back to Mercedes’ home one night and Mercedes went into her room and opened a letter. I looked through the door and I saw that it was a handwritten letter and I knew that her son was in prison. It was from her son. She started reading, I took some frames and moved out the way and Jess could shoot. That was an isolating scene that was very poignant – reading a letter from your son, while you are on parole, in a house that you’re trying to get out of.
PP: Why should we care about prisons and their aftermath?
AG: In the aftermath of prison, ideally, prisoners are changed members of society. Prisons are a place where people can at least try to signify to society that they have made recompense for crimes they’ve committed. Why is it important that we pay attention? The size of it. Until I met Mercedes Smith, I had no idea of the intensity of the problems former prisoners are facing.
PP: What type of problems?
AG: Housing. Mercedes living with a family member in housing projects in Manhattan. She wants to move on from that, but housing is so expensive that for her to actually afford something is really hard. And this is where all these elements that former prisoners face come together; she’s working two jobs part time and she’s looking for a third job. But it is very difficult for her to find any type of third job because she has curfew hours. Getting back to her apartment after curfew means she’ll break her terms of parole and potentially face going back to prison. For her to get an apartment she needs a third job.
Say if she wanted to move to New Jersey where housing is cheaper, she can’t. Her terms of parole require her to stay in New York State.
PP: Does she have good support?
AG: She was in a fortunate position because when she came out of prison to a very supportive and loving family. It is not quite accurate to say that Mercedes is fortunate because, in fact, she has worked very hard to get to where she is. Her children had been cared for by her mother and they visited her regularly while she was in prison and they had relationships. So, even after having done 20 years in prison, she had a warm and supportive environment to come back to and that’s something that – as I came to understand the issue better – a lot of people are lacking.
Mercedes is a really supportive mother who is doing everything she possibly can for her children. Two of her children live with her mother, one is down South and one is in prison. I saw her speaking a couple of times with her son that is in prison and it was a really warm and loving exchange – the tone of conversation that we all wish we could have with our mum.
PP: What did Mercedes hope of the project? Why did she go in front of cameras?
AG: Mercedes never said she felt like a role model, but she has figured out how to get out of the hole and she wants to save other women time and energy as they try to do so.
Both of Mercedes’ jobs work around her existence today as a parolee and as a former prisoner. She works with Women On The Rise Telling HerStory (WORTH), a group that lobbies for women who are imprisoned and particularly women who are giving birth in prison. The work plays directly into Mercedes’ experience, as she gave birth to her youngest child in prison, I believe.
Her other job is working with women just out of prison and giving them advice about what they have at their disposal; what organizations that might get in touch with. It is a mentor role. And she works at that second job with her own mentor.
PP: Your work is always about America.
AG: I research ideas and become interested in issues at a concept level, then I’ll start meeting people – community leaders in Pontiac, Michigan, for example, or in the case of Bedrooms Of The Fallen, family members. Everything I do is about America.
I see America as this sort of social experiment. I grew up in Australia; in the Commonwealth. I’ve lived in America for nine years, yes, but it remains so foreign to me. I hadn’t met a large group of Americans until 2003 when they marched into Iraq. I learnt more about America in Iraq than I did in America over those first few years [of the War on Iraq].
Working on different issues, here in America, is to continue to look at this experiment. The way Americans wave flags. It’s the same as how Australians wave flags, but in many ways it is very different.
The way Americans carry guns, the way they incarcerate people – it’s the world leader in so many poor statistics, but then in many great statistics too. I find it so bizarre to work here. There’s just an endless wealth of material. I don’t work on things I have a passing interest in. I have to be actively engaged … and, usually, angry.
Each aspect of American culture I look at, whether that’s politics, incarceration, war, treatment of veterans at home, suicide, post traumatic stress disorder, the auto industry, the economy – each thing adds to this tapestry that I’m trying to understand, and I want to, I just don’t know if I ever will.
PP: Why has VII pursued a partnership with TOTC?
AG: This partnership appealed because it was looking at a project in a way that offered solutions, with stories of people who were actively getting out of the problem, trying to create solutions to it. That is compelling.
I’d say it is a traditional approach to go to a prison and photograph the scenes and problems there. Or, to go to “convict alley” in Harlem, where there is the highest concentration of parolees living within a certain numbers of blocks in Harlem.
I was reading about speech-writing the other day and they were saying at the end of strong speech is a call to action. Both Ronald Day and Mercedes stand as a call to action. It doesn’t matter that they’ve been convicted of crimes because they’ve gotten beyond that and turned into people who empower those around them.
PP: VII wants to extend the project. Do you think you’ll continue involvement?
AG: I hope very much that the project goes on, and that it goes national. Think Outside The Cell is an incredibly powerful approach to this problem, so to see it produced on a national level would be compelling. I’d like to be involved, but I’d like more to see other photographers brought in.
It turned from an issue that I cared about into something that I all of a sudden became involved in. For a lot of us working in the press, it takes a significant amount for us to be shocked by certain things we see people come up against.
The opportunity that I’ve had to meet these inspiring people who are working to get out of this rut and try to change it at a policy level – that should be regarded by as wide a swathe of people as is possible.
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Ronald Day en route to work, NYC. © Ed Kashi / VII Photo
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Think Outside The Cell, a NYC based advocacy group, and VII Photo Agency recently collaborated to make and distribute a media campaign to educate the public about the continued struggles for felons post-release. This is the third of a five part series, ‘Ending The Stigma Of Incarceration.’
Ed Kashi, together with Ron Haviv, photographed and videoed Ronald Day‘s story. Ed and I chatted about his experience and the issues at stake.
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Editor’s note: On September 27, 2012, Ronald Day was discharged from parole. He has since obtained his passport and registered to vote. On November 6, he will vote for the first time in his life. These interviews were conducted prior to September 27.
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Prison Photography (PP): When the idea of this partnership cropped up, how was it that yourself, Ron, Ash and Jess became the first four photographers?
Ed Kashi (EK): To some degree we were chosen on proximity to the subjects. Proximity to New York … and budget. We sense that we’ll expand this work dramatically into a bigger documentary series – not only in terms of going more in depth with our two subjects but with two more subjects.
EK: I’ve done a lot of work on prisons and similar subject matter. I don’t know about the other three. I am driven by examining social and political issues and increasingly it is frustrating to be able to do that for publications and the editorial world. I can speak confidently for all four of us and say our hearts lie in examining social and political issues, but it is so hard to get the funding let alone the interest and the buy-in of the editorial world, so whenever the chance to partner with NGOs or foundations or organizations and go out in the world and do honest and good visual reporting and know that the work will be used in an effective way to advocate for these issues, we take it.
PP: Can you give us a brief background on those stories you’ve done on prisons before?
EK: The first project that I did was in the late 80s. I pursued a personal project on the issue of private prisons looking at Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) based in Nashville. I was fascinated back then by the issue of privatization that began under Reagan and Bush Snr. I was concerned that we were privatizing such a critical function of society. I went to four facilities around the country.
The next really big encounter with prisons was during my aging project. During the very first stage of what became an eight-year project on how America is growing old, I did a story on aging prisoners. I went to a couple of prisons with dedicated geriatric facilities. I did the fieldwork in 96 and 97 and the story eventually ran in the New York Times Magazine in 1997. It seems to be an issue I’m always bumping up against in one way or another.
PP: Compared to most photographers, your experience with and within prisons is incredibly wide and involved. Most photographers if they touch on the subject – and sometimes it might be accidental – might do do only once. Repeated visits to prison across the states is unusual. Access to private prisons is very unusual.
EK: I’d be amazed if CCA would give me or another photographer access again. They let me go to a juvenile facility in Nashville, an immigration facility in Houston, a maximum security prison in Santa Fe, New Mexico and a prison in Panama City in Florida. That the early operating years of CCA and maybe they were seeing it as a PR/marketing effort. I mean, I wasn’t even on assignment. To think that CCA would allow in the late eighties a freelance photographer from San Francisco to photograph in their facilities figuring, ‘Well, we’ve not had bad publicity yet, we’re just getting started, this is a way for people to know what’s going on.’ In the state of California, years ago I believe, they set down a policy in which journalists are not allowed in any of their facilities. More and more today, things are really shutting down. Access is in general shutting down for journalists in many ways. We’re perceived as having lost our neutrality and are now considered partisans!
PP: Well, we hear the term “liberal media” constantly. It is one of the most meaningless slurs I can think of. NPR is not liberal.; it’s journalism organization and it is neutral.
EK: The fact that anyone would call Obama a socialist is ridiculous. You should be sent back to school!
In terms of media, the type of person to go in to journalism should have an open and progressive mind. And I don’t mean progressive in a political sense; I mean you’re looking at the world trying to find out what’s going on; trying to figure out how to move forward; seeing the problems and then looking for where there may be solutions. By the nature of this work, you should be progressive and open minded, but unfortunately that has been translated into, ‘You’re Liberal.’
Quite frankly, I think there is something much more venal and dangerous this represents. What we’re now experiencing is something that was begun under the Nixon White House in the sixties and Pat Buchanan was very much behind it … and truthfully Cheney and Rumsfeld and the older Bush were part of it. It is in many ways, no different to what fascist and authoritarian regimes have done – which is to debunk and attack the media. If you don’t kill them physically, you delegitimate them. Really, that’s my very firm feeling of how these political movements work and it is very sad to me to see that this is happening in America.
I don’t see it happening in Europe, but America is such a huge country, a huge swathe is under-educated or naive. I think it is the nature of a large country. It is not that these are bad people, it’s just that they are not educated. It pisses me off and it scares me.
PP: Let’s talk about how that relates to this partnership. Does that landscape you just described, does that imperil the way potential this work and it’s products could be seen, interpreted or understood? Or do you look at it another way, a more positive way, that there wouldn’t have been a pressing need in the past to reach down and give a helping hand to a young, fledgling NGO. How does VII Photo, Think Outside the Cell and Sheila Rule anticipate that this work will be consumed?
EK: The way I look at this advocacy journalism, which is what I call it, is we gain access to subject we would otherwise have trouble getting access to. That’s number one. Number two, we’re doing it in cooperation with an organization that we know will disseminate the product to the policy makers and the people and organizations who can make a real difference and drive change – be it on a legislation for funding level.
Then, VII or the photographer can take that work and have a free hand to distribute it in the media landscape. The difference is that in the past I’d have to convince New York Times magazine or whoever it is [ahead of time] to give me time and money to go and do the work. Theoretically, I’d have been able to gain access because of the guarantor of a reputable organization and then the work would be funneled through that media organization for good or bad effect. In a sense, I prefer this [way of doing things] which sounds kind of weird. Just so you understand, on a process level, I’d rather just be working all the time for New York Times magazine or National Geographic or whomever, just because I love that being a journalist and having the support and protection of a media organization, but given the way things have changed and given the reality – both economically, politically and structurally of media in our society today, this is an exciting development that is taking place. As long as it is done in the correct way, where there is no slanted or biased reporting.
PP: You’ve been liberated but not compromised? And you use the phrase ‘advocacy journalism’ which is the most fitting term I’ve heard.
EK: On a deeper level – and this is definitely a product of my age and the stage I am in my life. Being mid career in terms of my work and certainly being mid career in terms of my life span and being a parent of teenagers and being engaged with the world not just as a journalist but as a citizen – I want this goddamn work to make a difference.
It’s not just about, ‘Hey, look, I got the cover of National Geographic magazine’ or ‘Hey, I’m on assignment for the New York Times Magazine.’ Its not that those things don’t have value any more, it’s that they are not the purpose. The purpose is, ‘How do I make work that makes a difference. How do I make work that can be utilized to make positive change?’ I think it is critical for us to find ways to tell stories that give optimism and a belief that there’s a way forward. We need to bear witness to the worst things that are going on in the world and not sugarcoat them. Obviously we need that objective first hand view of things. Whenever we can tell a story that exposes a problem but proposes a solution, I think that is the height of journalism.
Ronald Day at his home in the Bronx, during a Father’s Day barbecue, held on June 17, 2012 in New York City. © Ed Kashi/VII Photo.
PP: That’s what you want out of it. What do you think your subject, Ronald Day, wanted out of it?
EK: That’s a great question because it cuts through to the potential naked ambition of the photographer or the journalist. You’re getting points by shooting in a prison because it is gritty and it is edgy and it is tough and cool. You know what I mean? Characterized in that warped way the professional can work. Whereas, I am at a point now where I wouldn’t want to go into a prison or do a story on Ronald or anyone if I were to hurt the subject in any way.
What does Ronald want? I think he wants his story to be told, and it is common among people who agree to cooperate with journalists – it’s a little bit of vanity and a little bit of hope. At the very least, their situation will improve and for those who are a little more magnanimous, telling their story may help others in similar positions. I believe Ronald is a selfless man. He’s a pretty brilliant dude; he’s a smart and totally impressive. He is a poster-child for this particular issue. He is not your average ex-prisoner. I left the project missing him.
PP: How long have you lived in New Jersey?
EK: I moved here Christmas 2004, so eight years. I was born in New York city and raised in the New York area. In 1979, I moved out to the Bay Area.
PP: What did you learn, as a resident of the region, about New York State? VII and Think Outside the Cell intend to expand the initiative to other states. At that point the stories will change because each state carries different laws. But did you learn anything through Ronald peculiar to New York State when it comes to the stigma of reentry.
EK: I was surprised to learn about how a one size-fits-all nature of bureaucracy ends up shafting extraordinary guys like Ronald. The probation rules are a central theme of Ronald’s psyche and story.
PP: I’m presuming you think he should’ve had a faster track through probation and been able to take on student loans and start his PhD and make international travel.
EK: Yes, and for instance, now he is in this position where because of the job he has and the teaching at night, it forces him to break his curfew rules. He has to get up a 5 in the morning, to catch the bus to the train at 6:30, so he gets to Brooklyn in time for his work, but technically he’s not supposed to be out of his house until 7am. He could potentially be penalized for that. Or he has to go to some event in the evening, where he is teaching or speaking or taking a class and technically then he’ll get back home after his curfew. I understand that with tens of thousands of parolees in the state of New York you can’t have tens of thousands of different sets of rules, but it would be great to find a way to bend and accommodate for people when it is so clear they are on the right path. That might seem like a minor thing, but it is not minor to him.
PP: Anything else?
EK: I don’t know if I expressed this adequately but ultimately the goal of this work is to further break down the stigma of people who have been in prison and – as is the case with any journalism – to educate people. We have to look at the formerly incarcerated in a different light and in a sense we need to look at how the structures of our society deal with the formerly incarcerated. At a functional level, that is more important for former prisoners – so that when they go for housing or employment, they don’t face hurdles that basically leave them in a self perpetuating negative cycle.
PP: Do you think your media of choice, photo and video, are entirely appropriate? Inasmuch that you are battling stereotypes and many misleading stereotypes that have been created through mass media images, TV and film.
EK: That’s where this partnership with Think Outside The Cell is different. In a perfect world scenario, the work gets presented through big outlets, but ultimately this work will be used by Sheila Rule and her organization to advocate in the trenches. Progress occurs when a few minds who actually have some influence on the system are changed. So, they go into their next hearings, congressional meetings or classrooms and they open up others’ eyes. It is something I believe in – even despite all the cynicism and the over-mediated world we are living in, I absolutely believe in that, because I’ve seen it happen. You change one mind and then there is a ripple effect.
PP: Hear, hear. Thanks Ed.
EK: Thank you, Pete.
Ronald Day at home getting ready to go to work. © Ron Haviv/VII Photo
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Think Outside The Cell, a NYC based advocacy group, and VII Photo Agency recently collaborated to make and distribute a media campaign to educate the public about the continued struggles for felons post-release. This is part-two of a five part series, Ending The Stigma Of Incarceration.
Ron Haviv, one of four photographers on the project, was kind enough to take a Skype call from me. Ron and Ed Kashi photographed and videoed Ronald Day‘s story.
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Prison Photography (PP): How did you become one of the four photographers for the VII Photo/Think Outside The Cell partnership.
Ron Haviv (RH): Ed, Jessica, Ashley and I were brought in after the project was agreed and secured. To be honest with you, we hope this project to be a long term and expansive project going beyond New York.
PP: You want to cover the issue all over the country. Why is that necessary?
RH: It’s important that not all the subjects look alike or sound alike. We must emphasize this is not a New York problem; the stigma of incarceration is a national problem. So, it is imperative that we look to … maybe not in all fifty states … but we look to get to a number of states in order to give the audience a real variety of ideas and illustrate different problems that former prisoners are going through. Some of those problems are going to be state specific; that variety is going to be an important aspect for people to understand.
PP: Let’s talk about your subject, Ronald Day. He works in advocacy and service. He has earned a Masters degree since release. He teaches at John Jay College. He has started his PhD program in Criminal Justice at CUNY/John Jay. This guy is a success story. What sort of a relationship did you develop with Ronald?
RH: Before we started photographing, we went to meet him and he was incredibly open about his life – from very basic things to personal details. When we asked him questions he was very forthcoming.
He is an incredibly articulate and smart man as proven by what he has done inside and outside of prison. Ed and I couldn’t have asked for someone better through whom to illustrate some of the issues. To think that someone of his caliber struggles, means that people that don’t have that same skill set must really struggle.
Ronald Day on his way home after work and a lecture to students. © Ron Haviv/VII Photo
PP: What did Ronald want out of the multimedia piece?
RH: Well, his job is in helping others acclimate to society; people who’ve gone through the same things that he has gone through. His whole life is directed toward helping and informing people; people like myself who know very little about the stigma that felons deal with.
Ronald is informing the public and hopefully trying to have some impact on policy-makers and lawmakers. That being said, he is absolutely not the type to sit down and preach to you. He’s more like, ‘Look at what I’m going through, look at all the hoops through which I’ve had jump to get to where I am,’ and showing us by example [what is practicable], not just railing against the system.
It’s interesting. Usually a photographer will learn about their topic, in this case criminal justice and parole, through research and secondary sources, but here, in Ronald, we had the best resource, a primary resource, someone who has lived and is living the issues wrapped up in reentry to society after incarceration.
I think he is for sure remorseful and recognizes the mistakes he made. It’s not as if he claims he is innocent or was framed, but at the same time, he sees that was a very different person who went to prison 18 years ago. He’s a different man now. He has a son who is very important to him and a mother and a sister and her kids and they’re all living in a three story home in the Bronx – a very lovely place. So he has the family components that are all vital to a successful life.
Ronald Day at home celebrating Father’s Day with family and friends. © Ron Haviv/VII Photo
PP: How often did you photograph Ronald?
RH: We did a week with him over the course of six weeks.
To be perfectly honest, we didn’t spend huge amounts of time with Ronald. We’d see him at work and in the home and for different events but there was no huge emotional crisis that Ronald was going through that Ed or I had to witness or deal with. We were there for fathers day which was lovely – lots of friends and family at his house.
PP: You were paired with Ed Kashi – you making stills and Ed making video. Similarly, Jessica [Dimmock] and Ashley [Gilbertson] followed Mercedes Smith, the female subject. Had you and Ed worked closely on anything before?
RH: No, but obviously, we are business partners in VII. This was our first collaboration, the result of which will be a mixed media piece.
PP: You said before that the issue of stigma among the formerly incarcerated hadn’t been on your radar.
PP: What have you learned?
RH: Society *says* that if you commit a crime, you pay for it by time in prison and then, once you are released you are supposed to be able to continue your life.
I’m amazed that prison continues to haunt the people coming out to the point of often driving them back because they can’t get a job or they can’t get housing or it’s very difficult for them to go to school. That was very surprising to me.
With voting [disenfranchisement], you hear a lot about whether felons can vote or not, but I didn’t realize that if you’re filling out an application to rent an apartment or trying to get just a basic job, at McDonald’s for example, that there are boxes felons must check. As soon as they do [check that box], they’re out.
There’s no home, there’s no basic job, and so when you talk about recidivism in America, well, it is very obvious why a large part of it is happening; it is because there is no way to survive on the outside. For me, that was very disturbing and something that on many levels this country needs to deal with.
PP: How did we get to this state of affairs? Is America an unforgiving society? Is it bad policy put in place by misinformed politicians and voters? Let’s be frank, many of these laws have come about recently. How is it we treat the 700,000 released prisoners per year like this?
RH: It’s a combination of a number of things. In New York, the drug laws that were passed were, are, harsh and absurd in relation to the actual crime.
Plus, the break down of the family. Parents going to prison breaks up families. Children who grow up without a father have a much higher chance of going to prison. That’s not a problem for which the system must be blamed. That comes down to individual responsibility and must be taken a lot more seriously. I think it is incredibly important but not something we discuss.
Obviously, there are laws that are causing problems but a huge reality of it is people not being responsible for their children, basically. That is not the main cause but it is a large cause. And that applies to the white community, the Black community, the Hispanic community; it’s not a racial thing, but it is definitely a gender thing. Men are just not stepping up. That’s my personal position.
PP: Do you suspect there is a crisis among men in America? Is there an issue with male identity?
RH: Absolutely. There’s a lot of factors … but, men carry a huge responsibility. It’s probably controversial [to say] but I think there’s a real problem with the use of, and ideas surrounding, birth control.
I don’t understand why people are having so many children or why fathers are so proud to say, “I’ve got three kids with that girl and two kids with that girl.” It’s ridiculous and I’m not sure what the reason for it is but it really comes down to personal responsibility. If you’re going to have children then you need to be able to take responsibility for them, and if not then there are ways to not have children.
PP: Did you have any ideas how you would shoot this story? This is an issue about emotions somewhat but also about intransigent rules. How do you photograph someone being denied food-stamps or housing? How do you photograph bureaucracy?
RH: That’s exactly why Ed’s video element of this is incredibly important. There’s certainly ways to photograph the frustrations that Ronald and other people go through but by having multiple components where you’re going to see him in action, share his voice and hear him not just reading a caption but having a conversation. The combination of audio, video and stills makes it much more powerful and dynamic – compared to a straight up photo essay with captions.
PP: I think it interesting that VII has focused specifically on reentry. My position is to look at prisons and those invisible sites and think exactly how and what power is being played out, whereas reentry goes on in “free” society and so the assumption might be it is a subject more accessible for the photographer.
PP: Is this one of the major, ongoing initiatives at VII?
RH: We have a number of different partnerships, from projects with the United Nations, to Médecins Sans Frontières, to traditional media partners – TIME, the New York Times and Vanity Fair for example, but this is definitely something we think is extremely important and we’re very excited to hopefully take it further. Right now, it is just the beginning.
PP: It sounds like you’d be interested in doing a second stint on the project?
RH: Yes, and I’m also interested in following Ronald some more. I hope to see how he does at university. We’re not going to let him go! We’re going to continue to follow his story.
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VII Photo: “The United States imprisons more people than any other nation in the world. For the first time US history, more than one in 100 American adults are in prison. China is second, with 1.5 million people behind bars. An estimated 700,000 people are released from prison in the United States every year. Where do they all go?”
Ronald Day at his home in the Bronx, during a Father’s Day barbeque, held on June 17, 2012 in New York City. © Ed Kashi/VII Photo.
Inside and out of prison, people may think that to keep ones head down, survive America’s overly punitive prisons, and wait for release is enough. Unfortunately, it is not; for those looking to reenter society new struggles emerge. Each year 700,000 men, women and children are released from prisons and jails to face modern day laws and attitudes that marginalize them and limit their abilities to build new lives.
New York based non-profit Think Outside The Cell, a young but impressively effective organization, is bringing light to the struggles of former prisoners.
“The issue of stigma is not discussed enough but it is the issue of our time. The effects are so widely felt,” says Sheila Rule, Think Outside The Cell co-founder. Convicted felons are routinely denied employment, housing, access to college, the right to vote, and public benefits.
“The oppressive legal barriers and sanctions that undergird the stigma are the building blocks of modern-day inequality, keeping millions of deserving Americans on the fringes of mainstream society,” writes Think Outside The Cell.
Think Outside the Cell has partnered with the renowned VII Photo Agency to produce a multimedia campaign that will raise public awareness and educate media and policy wonks with persuasive storytelling.
“I knew about VII and their credibility,” says Rule. “It was a natural fit. We are both driven by storytelling. Stories change hearts and minds.”
In September 2011, Think Outside The Cell hosted A New Way, A New Day, a national symposium about mass incarceration. Speakers included Dr. Khalil Muhammad, director of Schomburg Center; Jason Davis, former Bloods gang leader and community activist; Jumaane Williams, New York City Council-member; Hon. Cory Booker, Mayor of Newark, NJ; Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow; Jeremy Travis, President, John Jay College of Criminal Justice; and Yolanda Johnson-Peterkin, director of operations, reentry services, Women’s Prison Association, among others. (View videos of the panels and presentations here.)
In the audience was Kimberly Soenen, a recent hire and Director of Business Strategies at VII Photo. Soenen knew that the issues of families, communities, criminal justice and inequality were of paramount interest to VII photographers. Rule, a retired New York Times journalist who knows the power of well-told and widely distributed stories, was open to Soenen’s approach to partner.
Soenen and VII focused on the immediate area and assigned New York and New Jersey based photographers to tell the stories of Ronald Day and Mercedes Smith. (With further funding, VII hopes to extend the campaign to other states.)
Mercedes Smith was released from prison two years ago. She begins college in January 2013 and although she struggles to find housing due to the rules of her parole she is making progress toward a stable life.
Ronald Day, 43, was incarcerated for 12 years, serving time in five NY institutions. Since his release, he has studied steadily, is employed connecting other former prisoners with access to services, is enrolled in the Criminal Justice PhD program at CUNY/John Jay College, and teaches criminal justice to graduate students at John Jay College.
Both Day and Smith have excellent relationships with their families.
Ronald Day’s story is not the typical tale, but that was precisely the point. VII and Think Outside The Cell wanted an optimistic view of how people can succeed in spite of the system.
“We’d always thought we’d follow someone as they were released and see them through the first weeks and months of difficult readjustment in the free world,” says Rule. But after some thought, Joseph Robinson, co-founder of Think Outside The Cell, Rule’s husband of 8 years, author, and current prisoner in Sullivan Correctional Facility, NY, suggested featuring someone who was, for all intents and purposes, succeeding, “Someone who everyone would think is doing okay, but who we could still show was facing Stigma,” posited Robinson.
While both imprisoned, Day and Robinson met at a National Trust for the Development of African American Men event. And, to this day, Rule often calls upon Day’s “dependable” organization skills to help plan Think Outside The Cell events. He was an obvious “messenger”.
However, for Day, the scrutiny of photojournalist cameras not surveillance cameras was a new experience.
“I’m not used to being followed by cameras continually. I guess that what reality TV is like. Children in the neighborhood called Ed and Ron ‘the Paparazzi.’ I thought that was hilarious!” says Ronald. “It’s good to know that my initial discomfort was a means to a higher purpose.”
Day’s motivation and higher purpose was to advocate for others.
“I want people to have a greater opportunity. You need to convince others that someone involved in a system has potential provided they’re given a chance. We need to take a second look at the individual, at the system, and the policies in ways which is fair and in ways which will change the laws,” explains Day. “I went online and looked at VII’s model for producing media. I realized it was a powerful way of producing journalism.”
And the issue is pressing.
Over the last 20 years, the number of major employers who screen for criminal records has grown to 90%. Laws that prohibit voting by people who have felony convictions deny an estimated 5.85 million Americans a visit to the ballot box. For people convicted of a drug felony, Congress has passed federal laws that place a lifetime ban on food stamps and cash assistance through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). While states can opt out of or modify the ban, most states enforce it in full or in part, says the Think Outside The Cell website.
Discrimination in the workplace is no better described as the experience of a young man who lived in D.C. and worked at a temp agency. “He was so diligent he was bestowed the Temp of the Year Award and the firm wanted to hire him full time, but when they found out he was formerly incarcerated, they fired him,” says Rule.
Furthermore, this story reflects how the stigma and laws disproportionately effect people of colour.
“Trying to figure out ‘Why’ is common to the African American experience. Was it race? Often it’s not always clear, but in some instances the reasons reveal themselves,” says Rule.
The daily limitations on former prisoners leads directly to cycles of incarceration, Robinson believes.
“It’s a cycle of stigma, collateral consequences, exclusion, and recidivism,” says Robinson. “The collateral consequences are enormous and they are not theoretical; millions are effected and it results in social, political and emotional exclusion.”
“People on parole, probation and even people 10 or 15 years out encounter difficulties achieving the basic things needed to live life – things central to being American, such as working and supporting oneself,” he says.
“High hopes and dreams can often lead to disappointment,” says Robinson. “You may have a guy who has developed a business plan, but when he goes to the bank they won’t give him a loan. There are hundreds of business licenses felons are barred from. Prisoners acquire skills in electrics, masonry, metalwork, but they can’t get construction licenses so they’re relegated to working off the books. [They are not permitted] licenses in accountancy or real estate even if their crime had nothing to do with money.”
Imprisoned for 21 years and four years from eligible parole, Robinson says he has lots of time on his hands to “develop creative ideas around social entrepreneurship.” Rule puts them into practice on the outside.
“I wouldn’t be where I am, if it weren’t for Joe,” says Rule. Although physical separated, Robinson says he and Rule are “joined at the hip” in their values.
“Social entrepreneurship is not a profit driven enterprise,” says Robinson. “I’m not saying making money is a bad thing, but the goal of social entrepreneurship is to achieve maximum impact while caring for ecology, society, people. If we focus only on profit, we can do more harm than good. NGOs, businesses, councils and governments can collaborate in social entrepreneurship.”
Specifically, Think Outside the Cell has launched a End The Stigma/Break The Cycle campaign to involve incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people; probation and parole officials; legislators and government officials; civil and human rights advocates; business leaders; labor union members; private and public employers; nonprofit administrators; students; and teachers.
Robinson and Rule are also keen to engage print and screen advertisers, which shows a canny regard for how social attitudes are shaped.
“While we are building a coalition of those who effect what we decide – legislators, officials, voters – we also want to involve people who decide what we think – those in media and advertising,” says Rule.
Meanwhile, the onus is on imprisoned individuals themselves. Day often quotes to a 19th century saying he discovered in Scott Christianson’s book With Liberty for Some: 500 Years of Imprisonment in America.
‘Very few individuals are ever rehabilitated in prison, and none are truly rehabilitated by prison. But some may rehabilitate themselves in spite of prison.”
The key to Day’s shift in fortunes was education and it is a subject he speaks passionately about.
“One intervention in the cycle of crime is access to education,” he says.
But access was curtailed in 1994 when Federal law prohibited prisoners from access to Pell Grants. State laws replicated the Federal laws. And there are other laws to reverse, too. Mandatory minimum sentencing, particularly for drug crimes, was hugely damaging. Day describes the sentences resulting from new 3-strikes laws in the 1990s as “cruel” and “disproportionate” punishment.
“The war on drugs failed,” says Day. “As Michelle Alexander points out, if you put someone into a drugs program instead of imprisoning them, you get better results. You can’t incarcerate your way out of the problem. Even conservatives recognize that. This is an ideal time; this is the most pressing of times.”
His role as a VII photographers’ subject is not without its complications for Day, but the ensuing wider conversation is worth it. His students and fellow PhD classmates do not know of his former incarceration.
“Once the VII Photo begins its series, there’s a chance they’ll find out and then we’ll have that conversation,” he says. “Often people say, ‘I’d never had guessed’ and then pepper me with questions. I often find I become a resource and that really effects the conversation.”
Bring on the conversation. With wide-eyes and courage.
“Society likes to imagine these problems don’t exist. Out of sight, out of mind. We have to deal with this. Yes, these are people who have breached the social contract, but we need to think about how we treat people after they’ve served time in prison and their debt to society,” concludes Robinson.
Rule and Robinson both acknowledge their work is in its infancy but have faith in, and knowledge of, how to tell compelling stories.
“It’s been a long and enriching experience. I have no illusions, but when most people hear our stories, they say, ‘I didn’t know’. I hear it over and over again, and then I hear, ‘What can I do to help?'” says Rule.
“Some people hold the ‘Once a convict, always a convict’ attitude, but others – and I’d say this is the majority of people – don’t know about the issues for the formerly incarcerated,” says Rule. “Think Outside the Cell campaigns and describes experiences creatively. The standards methods have no effect; creativity moves the dial.”
Ultimately, VII Photo is continuing Think Outside The Cell’s track record of telling stories with compassion.
Editor’s note: This article is the first of a five-part Prison Photography series which will examine the nature of the VII Photo/Think Outside The Cell partnership, canvas the photographers’ thoughts and hopefully add to the push toward a fairer treatment of former prisoners.